Sunday, August 4, 2019 Boston Landmarks Orchestra in "profound African-American music"

R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943)
(Library of Congress)

August 4, 2019

Deep and Profound Along the Charles


Its concert delayed by a day by weather until Thursday, Boston Landmarks Orchestra benefited from a gorgeous evening, replete with profound African-American music and composers to showcase work reaching far beyond its roots. 


WCRB’s Laura Carlo, as well as Wilkins, provided introductory remarks reaffirming the intent of the late Charles Ansbacher, Landmarks’ founder, to create tolerance with musical accessibility. The evening importantly featured not only the regular ensemble, but also Boston Landmarks One City Choir under the talented David F. Coleman directing its city-wide and Coro Allegro ― Boston’s LGBTQ+ and allied classical chorus ― with its artistic director, David Hodgkins. The touch of advisor, the Reverend Emmett Price, III, enhanced the entire evening.  The initial half celebrated the African Diaspora, with the “Deep River” theme adaptively connecting the black and multicultural communities and people from Boston’s varied neighborhoods. Fittingly, near the Hatch Shell, the Charles River attains its greatest depth.

The versatile composer, performer and polymath, William Grant Still (1895-1978), a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, wrote his prize-winning Festive Overture towards the end of the Second World War (1944). Tonight, a hint of the military, evident in Still’s opening pentatonic fanfare, played clearly by the brass, reminisced much African and Afro-Caribbean music. The theme shifted subtly to the violins. The trumpet section then briefly sounded a flourish. The second theme flowed expressively, followed by an easy restatement of the themes, conferring an optimistic mood. Children in the audience danced spontaneously from the start, and a music-loving and well-behaved dog barked only at the end of most offerings (the pup continued to contribute its bark to the applause, earning a benignly amused comment from Maestro Wilkins).

George Walker (1922-2018, the first African-American graduate of Curtis Institute) wrote what is now entitled Lyric for Strings as part of his first string quartet. In it, three arching segments present distinct voices interweaving and heading upwards and then enfolding within themselves. For my taste, this was the orchestral pinnacle of the evening, given the excellent musicians in the string sections. Though Walker garnered a Pulitzer Prize in music for his Lilacs for voice and orchestra, his Lyric for Strings is at least as worthy. The orchestral execution created the yearning sense fitting for this work and its initial title, Lament.

Four deeply-rooted spirituals then came in moving performances. Elvy Powell’s profoundly resonant bass-baritone voice has graced events for six US Presidents, and became the soul of the evening with his stirring and heartbreaking renditions of Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel (arranged by Lawrence Brown) and He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands (arranged by the late composer pianist, Margaret Bonds). When Powell sings, the ground reverberates! And the rising young Chicago-based soprano, Sirgourney Cook, sang Bonds’ versions of Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho and, I got a Home in the Rock.

The British Michael Tippett, the only non-African-American composer in the first half, adapted the soothing strength of spirituals in composing A Child of our Time, an oratorio in which an arrangement of Deep River profoundly anchors the last movement. Soprano Cook, and tenor, Davron Monroe, as well as mezzo soprano, Myran Parker-Brass and bass, the Hon. Milton Wright, sang this iconic rendition. Their strong voices lent fitting character to the work.

Monroe, who holds a Masters in Music in opera from Longy, soloed along with the chorus in R. Nathaniel Dett’s, Chariot Jubilee, orchestrated by Hale Smith. 

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